Seeking the democratic socialist in Canadian political life

Your father's socialism?: Tommy Douglas, leader of the NDP in 1971.

Open Letter for a "NEW" Democratic Socialist Party

Sisters and Brothers,

In his Oct. 9th, 2010 column, titled "The NDP: Not your father's socialism," John Ivison of The National Post wrote about the NDP's "metamorphosis of an old 20th-century socialist party into a vibrant 21st-century social democratic party." What exactly a "21-st century social democratic party" looks like is hard to discern though a few clues were provided by Ivison in a lower paragraph in the story:

"Under former leader Alexa McDonough, the party proposed an excess profit tax on financial institutions, which would then finance a National Investment Bank managed by ‘business, labour, government and the community.' There was much talk of ending privatization and increasing public ownership; of raising corporate tax rates and imposing a ‘Millionaire's Tax' on inheritances over $1-million. On foreign policy, the party proposed dissenting from NATO over the use of nuclear weapons.

"The image presented today is very different. The ‘squeeze the rich' rhetoric has been abandoned, in favour of moderate language that tries to reconcile equality and economic well-being. ‘These goals.... are not in conflict, rather they depend on each other,' according to the party's current website."

The Post's track record on virtually every other major issue from the environment to the Middle East notwithstanding, the article's description of the NDP's current political stance is accurate. Indeed, it was proudly embraced by the NDP. A similar quote in a different article, this time in The Toronto Star about the Ontario NDP, was even reproduced on "beta" posters portraying Andrea Horwath standing in front of the slogan "Not Your Grandfather's NDP."

The coincidence is so profound it would almost lead one to wonder if the idea was planted in the heads of the journalists by the party itself. The political party, whose forerunner, the CCF, once held the label "Farmer, Labour, Socialist" above its symbol, no longer uses the word Socialist at all.

Why does this matter?

It matters because over the last 40 years, the ideology of neo-liberalism has won every battle in its attempts to reshape our society. It matters because its defeat of the very idea of activist government has emboldened those on the right, and shifted the thinking of those on the left. In short, the NDP is no longer your grandfather's NDP. It is, in fact, your grandfather's Progressive Conservative Party.

Welcome to the new capitalism, unopposed by any meaningful political challenge.

The political consensus that has emerged out of Washington and Ottawa's governing classes is that interventionist government is wrong, except when government intervention is needed to save their friends on Wall Street and Bay Street. It is clear that capitalism is unable to save itself under anything approaching a "free-market" system and the Depression that began in 2008 proves this. With the willing complicity of our self-proclaimed voices of the left, we have instituted a system of socialism and welfare for the rich.

The effect of this political order is to prop up the failures of our societies' wealthiest while abandoning everyone else, including our societies' most vulnerable, by stealing tens of millions of their dollars to fund CEO slush funds and salaries.

While workers were forced to make concessions and millions of them lost their jobs, CEO's salaries went nowhere but up, all subsidized by your tax dollars. Instead of using the power of government to declare war on poverty, we have declared war on the poor and the middle class.

The issue is not that the NDP supported stimulus spending in order to save jobs. The issue is that in supporting these measures, they did so without actively calling for fundamental changes to the system that required bailouts in the first place. As a result, in the final analysis they basically called for the government to back up the tremendous social inequality that is represented by these same CEOs who forced this bailout and yet are now making over 150 times what the average worker does.

This is the problem with operating within the current economic system.

We have become a nation so often obsessed with stories of crime and the fear of the other. Our nightly news and daily front pages focus inordinately on the pornography of crime and individual misery. Meanwhile we ignore the "mundane" suffering perpetuated on so many of our citizens and their children by poverty or the fear of poverty. Is the terror felt by millions of Canadians facing destitution by being one paycheque away from impoverishment not also a genuine crime?

Poverty and hunger is bullying and violence. Only on a mass scale. Want a crime, how about the crime of the outright injustice perpetrated by the government and its accomplices on the daily lives of workers and the middle class? How about the crime of hundreds of thousands of Canadian children living in poverty every day? So many of our politicians have pontificated on the issue of crime. They have stated that there will be zero tolerance for even the average 8-year-old schoolyard bully.

And yet where are those who will say that our society's and government's bullying and violence against poor children is also a crime? If you stand by while a child goes hungry, you are no different than those that would watch a child beaten. Some of our biggest criminals, who leave whole communities destroyed in the wake of their crime spree, go unpunished, and even celebrated. They, through their corporate actions, have harmed more children than any schoolyard bully ever will.

In the face of this system, the NDP, which once articulated a vision for an alternative economic order, now merely argues for changes that are cosmetic, not structural. Rather than help organize citizens at grassroots levels to fight this assault in their communities, they offer band-aid solutions while editing their language and image in the vain hope that they can marginally increase their seat total in an election which, even if they won, would do nothing to alter the political-economy of the country. The NDP is so goal driven in its single-minded obsession to win a few extra seats that it has disempowered its own membership and riding associations from having any meaningful democratic voice within the party at all. Virtually every significant campaign and policy decision is made by the party's central offices and dissident candidates and riding associations are routinely overruled or sidelined. The party does not even have a standing platform!

The time has come to fight, not individual aspects of the state-capitalist system, but rather State Capitalism itself. The time has come to fight against the corporations that have moved our jobs to China, impoverishing workers there while destroying jobs at home. The time has come to fight against the system that has ensured that many of our fellow citizens work most of their lives in temporary labour without health insurance or retirement benefits. The time has come to stand up against the neo-feudalism that creates a society where individual debt is at an all time high while CEOs, "movie stars" and entertainers earn more in a day than most hard-working Canadians will in a year or even a decade, and where they get totally different treatment by the legal system. Rest assured, if the person who stole the $50 TV out of your house is caught they will likely go to jail as opposed to an investment banker who screwed people out of their entire livelihoods.

The time has come to stand up against the daily violence of the system with its destruction of good jobs in Canada and its entrenchment of poverty in the third world, all designed to satisfy an unsustainable consumerism.

Most important of all, the time has come to organize a political movement that will oppose this state-capitalist system and to give voice to this sentiment within parliamentary democracy, as well as within our communities.

The question of whether or not such a new socialist movement will succeed in winning this or that riding in the next election is not of significant importance. The Reform Party, as well as the NDP in their more radical days, demonstrated that a grassroots movement can affect the nature of the political debate without winning even a minority government. It is this victory, the altering of the political discourse in the country, that is the most important victory to win.

The process of altering the political discourse is by no means easy. The forces of the political right have shifted the debate such that, even when they are not in office their policies are still enacted.

One should note that Conservatives were seen as a spent force intellectually in the mid-20th century. Yet within a few years, they had succeeded in destroying the New Deal and Great Society programs in the United States. In Canada, they enacted Free Trade, NAFTA while handing over public wealth to private interests. Those on the left should draw lessons from their victories. The most important lesson is that an organized grassroots movement can alter the political landscape more effectively than a political party that won an election on a platform patched together from focus groups and pollsters.

Focusing on short-term electoral victory may bring more immediate gratification compared with the hard work of building a grassroots movement that will reawaken opposition to the existing socio-economic order. But where has this led us? The left has done focused on short-termism for 30 years and we have only lost.

There is an alternative.

This alternative is:

• A vision of a political movement that will fight for workers' rights;  

• A political movement that will fight to prevent the destitution of the middle class; 

• A political movement that will stand up against corporate crime and its consequences in your community;

• A political movement that will work to empower employees so that they can take over enterprises when their managers have failed them;

• A political movement that will implement Pharmacare and Public Dental Insurance so that hundreds of thousands of Canadians don't have to decide between things like Asthma medication and their rent;

• A political movement that won't tell you that it will manage state-capitalism better, that won't tell you that it knows how to balance a budget in heels or how to implement a "fairer" austerity.

It could be a political movement that will challenge the very basis of the social order that made these false choices "necessary" at all.

It is an alternative that embraces the idea that a different and better Ontario is possible. That does not accept that poverty and suffering need to be a part of this Ontario. That sees that hope is better than fear and that inspiration is a more powerful force than good management. A movement, that will fight for a future based on democracy, social equality and justice.

This is the Democratic Socialist alternative.

Andrew Klochek is a former NDP riding association president and activist from Toronto and Michael Laxer is a two-time former candidate and former election organizer for the NDP. Both are co-founders of the Ginger Project, a group dedicated to building a grassroots socialist platform for Ontario.

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